I applied for a job as a critic, and had to write a 300-word review. This is that.
Off the Page, The Guardian’s series of ‘microplays’, are all under ten minutes long, each focusing on a topical or political, though sometimes ill-defined, British socio-economic issue. The framing of them under the banner of theatre seems both unnecessary – they are, after all, simply short-form video – and novel; one presumes that this format-merging was as much for accessibility as for a Brechtian impulse to detach the viewer from their ‘suspension of disbelief’ to provoke a verfremdungseffekt.
My impression has been mixed. While each is well made and relevant in its way, some of these videos immediately evoke the stereotype of the “Guardian-reader’s delight”.
School Gate, for example, plonks two middle-class white Mums in front of neighbouring school signage reading Magna Carta Primary (NB: it’s the English school) and Wisdom Primary. The latter is of course the Muslim school, in which the enlightened Mum is totally cool with her white British daughter wearing the hijab as a school uniform, and staying behind for after-school prayer, even though we are to assume that their family aren’t Muslim…
Similarly, PPE’s performative ‘politicians’ repeating humanoid gestures rings true but obvious, and ends with a sweet, innocent child (read: not politician) running around to incredibly annoying music. These reductions just don’t have the nuance to speak at the volumes they believe they are.
Saying that, Britain Isn’t Eating and Death of England fare much better at brief but telling exploration of a single issue (food poverty and national identity, respectively). Not only due to performances by the ever-watchable Katherine Parkinson and Rafe Spall, but also because their monologues and characters leave much more to the imagination. The chaos and unresolved pain that follows Spall’s tirade and Parkinson’s ignorance rang far truer for me than any of the other ‘messages’ in the series.
Although many mass media texts and channels are more overtly political than others, it can be argued that all media is intrinsically political. Each media creator, text and channel chooses a form and method for the tone and representation of its content, and thus defines its political significance; even a renouncing of political position makes clear the creator’s political stance: that they deem politics irrelevant or inappropriate in the given context. With this in mind, the increase of mass media’s reach around the globe has profound implications for the influence of ideas and ideologies that affect our global governance in real terms. It is unsurprising, then, that the debate over whether we shape the media, or whether the media shapes us, rages on – and it is interesting in this context to note the dynamics between media that concerns politics as its primary topic, and media that contains implicit political ideas.
Alongside the developments in technology that have allowed mass media to be almost instantly and globally accessible, has been a commoditisation of the vast majority of mass media (i.e. media outlets are run as a business; texts and channels are bought by an owner and sold to a consumer), the implications of which on the political economy of the media are many and significant with regards to the dissemination of political ideas, and the integrity of mass media to function as a tool in favour of the majority. News’ valued objectivity is compromised and a lack of accountability arises when an individual (or small groups of individuals) hold so much power over the communication of ideas throughout the global village. Certain political ideas are favoured, and some are suppressed, depending on the political ideologies of the owners of mass media outlets – not only in news, but in entertainment.
Interestingly, as the global reach of mass media has increased, political engagement and awareness has not necessarily been impacted positively. Of late, there have been record lows of voter turnout, a general distrust of the integrity of politicians and the democratic process, and a cynicism around the integrity of political media reporting itself. This has gone hand in hand with huge cuts to the journalism industry and public arts funding bodies that have rendered investigative journalism and media almost non-existent in the mass market, and an increase in 24 hour news media and information on demand that has left fewer workers with far more work than previously.
Arguably the most significant debates around political news media of late have been the ethical implications of ownership of vast numbers of news outlets by media conglomerates, and the challenge to them by grassroots organizations and social media. On one hand, the news landscape is dominated by corporate news organizations, and on the other many believe sites such as Twitter propose a significant challenge via alternative means (for many, Twitter’s user-generated front end obscures its corporate status.) With the introduction of 24-hour news channels that bring a constant stream of global political news to television and computer screens, and the rise in popularity of the Internet as a news aggregation tool, there is also a dominance of competing information and competition to be the first to break political stories. There is a contradiction in the depth and intensity of these non-stop media feeds, in that while the speed and coverage with which citizens are introduced to political information technically increases, an intensity of competition and insecurity is created that prevents lucidity of information, and attention to a full spectrum of occurrences. Alistair Campbell argued that during his tenure in Blair’s cabinet, this directly increased the perceived need for political spin within the government, for which he was responsible, since the demand for political information from journalists became incessant. As a result of the new political news climate, Campbell and his team would have to go into overdrive, further obscuring any organic insight into Britain’s political workings.
The ethical arguments concern the relationships between politicians and media barons, the financial framework of news corporations, and the culture of journalistic methods. Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation owns hundreds of news outlets on all continents, ranging from television news channels to magazines to newspapers. The global political influence of what is communicated by his outlets, then, is huge. Murdoch publicly maintains that he dictates no editorial line in his papers, yet he is long reported to have had private business meetings with numerous political leaders, and all but one of his newspapers maintained a pro-war line before the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Murdoch is the most well known example of this media monopolisation, but he is simply one example of the people who have created these ethical issues in the contemporary landscape of media ownership.
Long commoditised, entertainment media has always had a myopic but inextricable relationship with political content. Mass entertainment media could be said to exist on a spectrum of political engagement, ranging from biting satire at one end to fantastical escapism at the other. Again, it must be noted that all stories, representations, and methods of creation contain political values even, and especially when, they efface overt political discussion or engagement.
Mass entertainment media on television, in film, in print and now online most traditionally concerns the individual narrative at its core, with a backdrop of spectacle, comedy, romance, violence, or all of the above, to increase its impact. It has also traditionally been, and continues to be, seen as an escape from ‘reality’ and thus a rejection of engagement in favour of respite, though the moralistic values of self-governance and choice ethics of many individual narratives in fact impart some powerful political messages on unsuspecting audiences. (Indeed, were mass entertainment media not so instructive and meaningful, there may be less mass consumption of it.)
Documentaries are perhaps the most overt, and recently massively popular, form of politically engaged and campaigning media. Since Michael Moore’s overtly political Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004) became the highest-grossing documentary of all time, and his previous film Bowling for Columbine (2002) won critical acclaim and wide distribution, political documentaries have been climbing for the same heights of box office success as features. Bowling for Columbine and Alex Gibney’s Inside Job (2010), concerning America’s fatal relationship to gun ownership and the individual perpetrators of the economic crisis of 2008 respectively, were both awarded the Best Documentary Oscar, and grossed millions of dollars. Neither shyed away from confrontation, and while lacking an explicit call to arms for specific political action, they certainly made their values towards these political disasters clear. Backed by large companies in the mainstream film industry, both received global distribution and engaged audiences en masse.
Some of these films have affected real political change – since the exhibition of Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s Blackfish (2013), a feature documentary about the violent behaviour of captured orcas at theme parks such as SeaWorld, stocks in SeaWorld have dropped dramatically and animal-rights campaigners have heavily promoted and employed the film as a tool in their fight for change in the industry. This has been dubbed ‘the Blackfish effect.’
That said, many of these documentaries specifically refrain from laying down an explicit political objective or trajectory that they would like to see post-theatre (in fact, Blackfish did not call explicitly, only implicitly, for the closure of or withdrawal of funds from SeaWorld by investors.) Many campaigning films that do designate explicit political objectives highlight the individual choices of the consumer as a way to affect change (see The End of the Line (2009). In this way, many documentaries can be seen as manifestations of the liberal political contexts from which they come, commoditizing their political messages in the same way that they themselves are bought and sold to survive in the industry, rather than arguing for fundamental or radical political change to the crises or abuses with which they are concerned.
However, due to the rise of the internet, standardised and portable media equipment, and advanced user-centred technology, many grassroots media organizations have thrived in the climate of peer-to-peer connection that have been afforded them. In particular, film collectives and co-ops can organize to produce various screen media, then distribute and exhibit them through sites such as YouTube and Vimeo at little to no cost. The labour issues involved are still difficult to navigate since film production is highly time-intensive and funding is sparse, so many radical filmmakers who cannot find a voice or recognition within the industry have pursued creative ventures outside of regular paid work (as has been the artists’ tradition).
Similarly, the rise of blogging platforms and self-publishing networks, not to mention social media, has allowed for independent journalism by all, and thus mass media can be brought to the masses by the masses. The drawback of this, of course, is that the tools and means of media creation are now so accessible that the volume of mass media content that is available is dense, nebulous and unregulated; being heard amongst the cacophony is increasingly difficult. The surfacing of quality journalism and filmmaking is in constant rotation and whether it will ever become financially sustainable for individual creators is yet to be seen. However, the aesthetic of online media has changed alongside developments, so that a rougher aesthetic will be accepted where it wouldn’t in mainstream mass media industries, if its content touches on a popular or relavant topic, or has a particularly appealing style.
Currently, the Internet and the new media associated with it (such as social media networks, user-generated media, creative development tools, online software subscription, media on demand, etc.) is changing at such a rapid rate, it defies definition. What is true at the time of writing is unlikely to remain timely. What is certain is that the future of media, political mass media, and the politics of, and within, the mass media is potentially radically transformative for society. There is vast opportunity in this new technology and culture of media for increased transparency of information, political behaviour, and political organisation, especially in the context of investigative political journalism around the world. Corporations who currently own and control the mass media, who have an interest in disallowing political upheaval and social change, however, also have an opportunity to colonise cyberspace in the same way they have done the traditional mass media industries.
The vastness of the current sphere of both traditional vertically-integrated and burgeoning horizontally-integrated mass media perhaps dilutes its political implications. The nebulous nature of human societies across the global village prevents one accessible and agreeable message from touching everyone, even before it is impacted by the dominance of huge media corporations and their relationships to political and financial elites. If we can engage with new media aggressively and purposefully, rather than passively, we might well see a new politics emerge, and soon.
The only thing I’m sure about post-my viewing of chick flickwoman’s film film-about-women-and-their-lives The Congress at my local arthouse cinema was that The Lady From Shanghai looks like a damned travesty. Not only is it one of those old, slow, black and white jobs I resented studying during my undergraduate, in which Orson Welles walks around being portly and grumpy while earning more than the majority of surgeons, but as this trailer ran and I waited for the definitely-awesome-feminist-epic The Congress to start, the eponymous and conspicuously caucasian Lady in question, Rita Hayworth, said literally nothing, AND was slapped three times.
Three! And they’re all at once, so one was a backhand. It was really gross. Old, conventional films suck. Yay for the breaking of new barriers in genre, narrative and equality!
Focusing on my sweary outburst at the Watershed following the Lady From Shanghai trailer allows me to ignore my ambivalence and disappointment regarding The Congress, about whose representation of the success of women in the film industry I am far more unsure. I was totally promised an aging-woman-is-unacceptable-so-they-clone-and-utilise-her-to-make-money-i.e.-LITERAL-OBJECTIFICATION-and-subsequent-feminist-win narrative, but was given only the first half of it.
As you can tell from my serene, offhand use of punctuation, The Congress had seemed a feminist and neoclassic industrial critique; deeply layered, achingly painful and consistently toeing the line between real and surreal, the first act was a near perfect imagining of the ever-changing yet ever-thus entertainment industries, the people who populate them, and their possible futures, through the eyes of the human, mother, and actress Robin Wright (played by actual human, mother and actress Robin Wright, who is far better respected and hopefully happier than the film’s Robin Wright, who is consistently referred to as ‘Robin Wright’, being that she is a thing rather than a person, of course.) The pain of Robin Wright’s difficult parenthood and exploitation by her agent perfectly balances the very overt satire of the film’s own industry, and sets up a story which could, at this point, potentially either excel or eat itself.
The film has incredible, rich and relevant themes. Pathways I couldn’t wait to travel to find out how Robin Wright (and her various manifestations) would reach their end point on The Journey. Unfortunately those many substantial themes (industrial oppression and exploitation, human agency, parenthood, the duplicity and fragility of relationships, woman as object, man as villain, etc.) become in-credible, and almost redundant in the second act amongst the gurning flying-fish, horizon-spanning rainbow-streaked roads, and butler-robots that constitute ‘The Animated Zone.’ There seems to be no fathomable purpose for the film’s ‘animated zone’, other than director Ari Folman’s notoriety for expert use of animation in his previous genre-mixing documentary Waltz With Bashir, and the fact that it allows for experimentation with reality and meaning, and the audience’s expectations (and their time.)
Look, I appreciate genre-bending cultural hybridity as much as the next quasi-intellectual former arts student who reviews films in their spare time (read: lonesome hipster wannabe), if only for the fact that they provide refreshment and, hopefully, challenging stories and ideas. But 45 minutes in, as an intertitle informs us that it’s ’20 Years Later’ and Robin Wright literally drives down the road from the ‘old world’ into the ‘new’ one, the sudden diversion from dystopian thriller to indecipherable blend of Mario Kart and The Justin Bieber Show is, rather than the very awesome product it ought to be, kinda distracting.
Once in the inexplicable land known as both the Animated Zone and Abrahamia (and act two), the narrative is only loosely relevant, now an ambiguous stream-of-consciousness venture relying on random phrases and (undeniably beautiful) animation to create connections and meaning. The only lynchpin holding this together is Wright, who we’ve become attached to, but who is then bumped from the position of protagonist to femme fatale, rendering a film about protagonist Robin Wright being cloned and owned into a confused literal manifestation of that with little reprieve.
So. Wright goes to Abrahamia to see Jeff, the executive who organised her cloning and who is now a police officer, in the big hotel-ship Miramount (the future manifestation of Miramount Studios and now a corporation, Miramount Nagasaki, which bottles small vials of chemicals allowing people’s likenesses in to be consumed.) Wright addresses an audience of Miramount Nagasaki workers who have come to see her speak, and shouts that she is their “prophet of doom.” An assassin initially guns for her but kills the emcee of the proceedings, then blows up the building. Dylan, the love interest, appears and becomes the agent of the story, dragging Wright around to show us the trippy scenery, and partially explaining his life to us, but not really what’s going on or why we should care. Then Wright travels about in time to little purpose, then they have sex in front of a massive fireball, and then, thankfully, Dylan gives her the means to get out of the Animated Zone. The barriers to a clear narrative purpose distract us from any of the original themes – which by then are only felt via snapshots of thematic coherence in phrases:
“Everything is in our mind. If you see the dark, then you chose the dark.”
“Don’t give up. Don’t fall asleep…”
“I’ll sign! Just stop fucking with my head…”
And with these resonances, I’m wondering whether, in fact, the film is a piece of Lynchian genius, from which we are actually poorly prepared for by the traditional setup of act one… It made me think of Mulholland Drive – you never really know what’s going on, though you are kept fascinated by the drip of tiny, frustrating clues. One of the biggest keys came in the form of Dylan’s animated-bull-man sequence. Miramount Nagasaki’s chemical substance allows you to create yourself in whatever animated likeness you want – Dylan imagines himself as a bull; he is shown stampeding a young girl, whom he throws onto his back and then up into the stars, where she evaporates. What seems to be a referral to aggressive but ultimately benign masculinity ends with the phrase “it’s about feeling…” If The Congress is about simply feeling the feels of this strange potential virtual world of ‘the future’ in which little makes sense, and we are so detached from ‘reality’ that we can’t even work ourselves out, then it could be argued that it is going someway to a radical reflection of the current status and trajectory of the dynamics of western public and private life.
Particular phrases and archetypal characters did resonate with some very general concepts about love, pain, agency etc., but without the robust story within which to fully brew those themes, they remained as abstract as they are. I felt them, but they did not make any more sense to me than they do at work in my own life, only in my own life I tend not to wonder why Tom Cruise has just appeared or Michael Jackson is serving me dinner. Octopuses also do not talk, in the main.
Ultimately, The Congress seems to be two films; the long-ish first act containing the power play between Robin Wright and the industry was fantastic, and felt frustratingly unfinished. As soon as it became an addled exploration into the psyche of someone under the influence of an unknown drug, in an uncertain and abstract representation of a place, with unrecognisable characters, it lost me. I spent more time trying to decipher what and why than feeling and understanding them. But I still felt enough of it that I wanted it to work.
Saying all this, I did see the film on a day I was feeling particularly lonely, and I dashed out of the cinema, and straight into the loos for a right old cry – the catharsis was far greater than that of any other film I have seen lately, as I had expected. For its lack of grip on a narrative, its pinballing themes and creation of meaning was only frustrating in the shadow of how fascinating I feel it should have been considering the rich emotion and desperation that were consistently. If the message of the film is to pay more attention to ourselves, our lives, and what is ‘real’ for us – our relationships, our values, our agency – all of that meaning was there, we just need to work harder (or less hard?) to make sense of it. I just don’t think that the Yellow SubmaTitanic was the ship to float these ideas on; it would have worked better had it been a predictable Hero’s Journey, minus all the rainbows and flying and maypole dancing and poppers that turned people into White Jesus and British Ronald Reagan (even B-Ro could not redeem this for me.)
The film made me feel weaker rather than stronger in my understanding of its consciousness about consciousness, in refusing to shape its transmission of meaning and values. As Kermode has noted (most famously regarding Blue Velvet, of which a repeat watching transformed his cynical experience to one of being “vibrantly thrilled”) sometimes you need to watch a film twice or more to fully absorb and ‘get’ it. I will likely do this – but I wouldn’t pay to see it again. The Congress made me feel, but what it made me feel was a bit angry, confused, and sad.
Carl Miller of the Centre for the Analysis of Social Media asserts that “para-political activity is a potent and growing phenomenon”, and if you’ve ever even glanced at social media, you’ll agree. But, note the use of the prefix para-, and his following assertion: “as politics in front of our eyes seems to be business as usual, an earthquake is rumbling under Westminster.” Is it really the case that the likes of Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are galvanising and facilitating a post-postmodern world of political organisation? Will it, or has it already, changed the lives of those who use it to the extent that our future leaders might come to organize and communicate in ways that can’t be racketeered? And in a week in which reports of the Gaza conflict saturate the online mediascape, can it be the case that social media is important and effective enough to in fact make an impact on conflicts like these?
The term ‘social media’ (SM) is often a truncation to describe the now omni-accompanying digital platforms via which we chat blithely to tenuous contacts and acquaintances. The phrase is synonymous specifically with Facebook and Twitter, the profile-based platforms from which the majority of SM users broadcast and receive information, and are largely a deluge of faces, frivolity and thrillingly small animals. SM’s much broader network of tools can be underestimated; the term encompasses a vast amount of ‘Web 2.0’, the modern internet in which user-generated content dominates the landscape and the culture of cyberspace’s constant conveyor belt. YouTube, Instagram and Flickr are all social media tools too, as is Wikipedia, and all online blogs. The collective, collaborative potential of this revolution in communications is well utilized in certain arenas, and taken for granted in others, and the focus on SM as simply an individual’s digital ego-hub is often the source of its dismissal. But there are huge implications in its wider applications of creating, obtaining and transmitting events, visual media and discrete information freely and instantaneously. History need not be entirely written by the winners if the underdogs know their tech.
With all this potential, is there concrete value in social media as transformative platforms? Is it easy, or even helpful, to distinguish between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ uses of it (or, in terms of political engagement and activism, ‘effective’ and ‘ineffective’)? Can uploading a photo of your dinner for the umpteenth time ever affect change? What if it’s another inadequate meal supplied by food banks because your parents are out of work, below a link to an article about the rise of the UK’s reliance on them? There are different ways to use SM valuably and effectively, to distribute information, to influence, to make visible, to facilitate understanding. And it seems that social media has the potential to do for awareness of current political crises what television reportage did for awareness of the Vietnam war; then again, the US waged destruction for years in spite of widespread dissent.
Jane Gaines debated a similar question with regard to documentary film in her essay ‘Political mimesis’ – what is it about political and social documentary film that moves people, and when it does, does it actually galvanise them into action? Does exposure to political argument via visual media encourage praxis? Gaines argues that alongside an emotional reaction, the visual representation of violence, struggle and conflict instigates (as all cinema does) a physical, visceral reaction similar to that of pornography; but to arouse the mind, arms, spirit, rather than genitalia. This stimulation can be felt even in the most terrible Hollywood war epics, but when the emphasis is on ‘real’ events, and ones that are occurring now, this bodily response might incite us to act upon what we now ‘know’ as a result of documentary ‘evidence’. This week, videos from Gaza, news reports and opinion pieces have gone viral across SM – not only do they move us emotionally, but hopefully, then, to act.
However, in his column for the New Yorker Malcolm Gladwell famously trashed SM ‘activism’, explaining that the ‘act’ largely ends at the click of a button: “the platforms of social media are built around weak ties. […] There is strength in weak ties, as the sociologist Mark Granovetter has observed. Our acquaintances—not our friends—are our greatest source of new ideas and information. […] But weak ties seldom lead to high-risk activism.” Gladwell points out that SM is a participatory, not motivational, tool that lessens the level of motivation that participation requires – by sharing that video of the boy with his face blown off, you’ve done what you can. You’ve distributed the information, perhaps contributed to others’ awareness; what else can you do?
How can we determine the value of this kind of activity? On one hand, how exactly can you help victims of atrocity other than by making people aware of their fate? Perhaps you share a few more videos, a few more articles. On the other, it’s clear that the definition of ‘help’ here is barely workable; what the children of Gaza needed was real political change years ago. How cynical can we be about our ability to affect the world? Does anyone know which acts will actually change a situation? Clicking the ‘Like’ button? Retweeting? What is it good for – absolutely nothing?
On the other side of the fence is Clay Shirky, who believes that “the fact that barely committed actors cannot click their way to a better world does not mean that committed actors cannot use social media effectively.” While it is true that masses of apathetic, alienated, square-eyed youth in the UK spend vast amounts of time interacting predominantly digitally, their interaction with internet culture and SM can be optimal for an introduction to political awareness, even if not political action, if used with intent. Internet culture, especially ‘geek’ or ‘nerd’ culture, has a strong interest in social justice, and this interest is reflected in SM content and even popular internet culture far more than it is in mainstream popular media. Internet culture is certainly influenced by mainstream culture, but can also act in opposition to it; in order to gain the most out of the power of the horizontally-organised counter cultural cyberspace, you have to want to immerse yourself in learning and acting on your knowledge. The crux of the problem being, therefore, that the majority of our culture and national curriculum distinctly lacks political analysis or awareness in the first place. And it’s not only young people who lack the drive.
It’s an ongoing struggle to encourage people to engage, but more and more communities exist online that encourage us to learn, and act. John and Hank Green, using their hit YouTube channel Vlogbrothers and numerous other SM, have created an online culture with a network of users and fans named ‘nerdfighteria’. [Said fans and users (‘nerdfighters’) are self-proclaimed nerds who fight the perennial scourge of worldsuck to increase awesome.] The Project for Awesome (P4A) is a yearly fundraising drive that the Vlogbrothers run via YouTube, encouraging users to upload videos in support of charities, thereby increasing awareness and encouraging their audiences to donate. For 2013’s P4A they also utilised crowdfunding site Indiegogo, raising $721,696, breaking Indiegogo’s record for the most money raised by a campaign. Together with the YouTube efforts the total raised in 2013 was $869,591.
Popular comic creators who make the most of their hits through social media such as Cracked and CollegeHumor have also used their presence to bring political issues to their audiences. Increasingly, these mainstream humour sites are distributing videos via SM that discuss issues such as gay rights, women’s rights, and net neutrality, for example. While this makes political tension accessible to people who might otherwise choose not to engage, what comes of the access to these videos? Could we justify creating content about the situation in Gaza for a mainstream comedy audience? CollegeHumor’s YouTube channel has 7.5 million subscribers; Reuters, BBC News and Associated Press have less than 1 million combined, reflecting both a creator and audience focus on lighter topics that can be made funny rather than the most urgent of political crises. This disparity here between passively encountering politics in one’s entertainment media, and engaging with active political organizations who are actingIRL illustrates Gladwell’s point nicely.
As far as the dynamic between SM and the mainstream media (MSM) goes, many have hastily hailed SM’s horizontal power structure as a cure-all alternative, while ignoring the complexities of the ever-intensifying relationship between them. Rather than expressing any distaste or worry about SM as a defiance, Martin Niesenholtz of TheNew York Times notes that SM is “highly complementary to what [they] do”. While SM has the ability to inform where the MSM won’t (rather than can’t), the MSM is also absorbing and incorporating it, and fast. Corporate news isn’t going anywhere quite yet, and until SM provides a direct challenge to it by making itself better organised, it will remain complementary. For example, both CNN and Al Jazeera have established networks of volunteers on the ground in crisis situations to provide news content to them via SM, which is then verified by journalists back at HQ; indeed, Al Jazeera’s network was set up as a direct response to the 08-09 conflict in Gaza. While SM can provide a fighting alternative to the blackouts and corruption we see too frequently from MSM houses, its loose networks suffer from a lack of direction, organisation and verification that provide their own problems. The MSM is quickly learning to pick up that slack while reaping the benefits of horizontally organised groundwork.
Former BBC ‘future media’ executive Nic Newman posited that while Twitter has a significantly smaller audience than Facebook, its users are the real “influencers. […] The audience isn’t on Twitter, but the news is on Twitter.” Jeff Jarvis of the City University of New York noted that political conversations and debates are going on already, and journalists need to realize they are simply a part of this wider discourse, and should focus largely on providing context, debunking, and analysis. Channel 4 News seems to have cottoned on to this with regard to Gaza, creating a web video of significant critique from head reporter Jon Snow. In only a week the video has received around 900,000 views, several times that of any other of Channel 4’s videos that have been live far longer. In 5 minutes, Snow details his direct experience, providing visual evidence, critical context and concise analysis of the situation in Gaza, with a focus on the issue of most urgency: the fatal damage to its children. The length, content and style of the video makes it optimal for informing SM grazers about the situation, and is of course shareable across all SM platforms from YouTube. This is a particularly effective and efficient example of the way this collaboration can be used to influence people, engage them with politics, and pass that influence and engagement on. People want to engage, and when the opportunity appears amongst our shiny distractions, most will take that first step.
Two other videos concerning Gaza that have stood out for me this week are user-generated, and quite different. One, so vile, spurred me to act. I did not watch it, I saw only the thumbnail image. It shows a boy whose entire jaw is missing, ripped away by a bomb, and entering a hospital – to have what done to repair him, I can’t imagine. Stunned, I could not look away. I dipped my eyes to the comments below. The first one simply read
“guy comes in with no bottom jaw. Doctor spends 40 seconds making sure that he films him.. Riiiiiiiight.”
Disturbed by both the image and the blasé, cynical response, I felt sick, powerless; but determined to respond. The following comments were all of shock and disgust, and one admonished the sharer for posting it in the first place. Some questioned its authenticity; all legitimate concerns. How many other people were moved to act, share, write, boycott Israeli goods, pen a letter to the government…I do not know, and I suspect very few. I wish it had never happened; in lieu of that, I will engage with it.
The other video was of the previous day’s protests in Brighton and made by a filmmaking colleague, Lee Salter; a short observational reportage-style video in which members of the march were interviewed and the subject analysed. They spoke of boycotting Israel-trading outlets, of why they choose to march, of their frustration at the snails pace of change. The video is titled ‘Gaza to Brighton – things that we can do for Gaza’; one that encourages engagement and sharing, to consider actions such as marching and boycotting, to make noise and demand change, and make visible the people who are enacting this resistance already and how we might join them. It might not feel like much, but it’s often all people feel they can do, disenfranchised and confused as they are.
Gladwell makes a damning but noteworthy assertion about the power structures of internet networks, social and political. “Unlike hierarchies, with their rules and procedures, networks aren’t controlled by a single central authority. Decisions are made through consensus, and the ties that bind people to the group are loose. How do you make difficult choices about tactics or strategy or philosophical direction when everyone has an equal say?” Collective organizations can be successful when they have solid aims. If unions got distracted by putting cats in mugs and making gifs of them, would we be surprised when the strikes never happened? The Internet does not have solid aims, because it represents a vast number of people on the globe, a huge number of the whom are are ill-informed, unhappy, bored and understandably disillusioned. To ensure the productive and effective use of SM by the user, the audience, the masses, we need to understand what it is good for, and what it’s limitations are. Clay Shirky, in part, finds agreement with Gladwell here: “social media tools are not a replacement for real-world action but a way to coordinate it.”
The dissemination of information and ideas is only the first step for political engagement. For the majority of SM users, especially the slacktivists who think they’re affecting change by clicking a button, it’s the last. Direct activism and action can be suggested, encouraged and introduced by SM, but nothing will replace work done and demands made on the ground. Unfortunately, radical action (and even democratic action) are silently discouraged by the structure of our lifestyles, our 9 to 5 hours that could be better distributed, our entertainment-saturated landscape, our addictions encouraged by advertising, and illiteracy concerning power. Again, Gladwell denounces SM for making “it easier for activists to express themselves, and harder for that expression to have any impact. The instruments of social media are well suited to making the existing social order more efficient.”
It is easier than ever to type in a keyword about human trafficking, Gaza, environmental degradation and corporate corruption and instantly find reams of articles, twitter accounts and discussion boards providing the networks, connections and information to get started, but the audience needs to be searching in the first place. Education reform, parental guidance, and commitment to engagement in conversation are absolutely essential. Shirky’s assertion that “access to information is far less important, politically, than access to conversation” is astute; we must maintain the conversations and encouragement with each other (IRL) that may make or break our futures.